Richmond Methodists ring true
For bells are the voice of the church;
They have tones that touch and search
The hearts of young and old.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A gift from a visiting Japanese woman has brought new life to an aging Christchurch congregation.
Kiyoko Toya was shopping at the New World supermarket in the Christchurch neighbourhood of Richmond, in June 2000, when she saw the historic Methodist Church across the street. She attended the next Sunday service, and the congregation struck a chord with her.
Not only did Kiyoko stay on, she mentioned that she had a three octave set of handbells and was happy to teach anyone in the congregation how to ring them.
A small group formed around Kiyoko. It grew and persevered. Today the Richmond bell ringers not only play during church services but also at public concerts, and a second group has been formed to introduce more people to handbell ringing.
Almost all of the 15 bell ringers are over 50, and the oldest is in her 80s. Not all the bell ringers are from the Richmond congregation. Some attend other churches and several are members of the local Japanese community.
In 2003, eight Richmond ringers travelled to Wellington for the Australasian Handbell Festival. In 2004 they rang at a festival in Adelaide.
The bell ringers entertain at Probus groups, rest homes, and church fellowship groups, and they have been guest artists at choir concerts. Each year they literally ring in Christmas and Easter with performances at Richmond Methodist services.
Kiyoko first saw handbells in 1978 at a church she attended in Tokyo. She fell in love with them, and some years later by chance she met a handbell salesman at a Christmas party during a visit to the US.
“As soon as I spoke with him, I decided in my mind to get the bells even though I did not have enough money. About the same time, I lost my mother. She left some money to her children and my share was enough to fulfil my wish. So the bells are a precious gift from my mother,” Kiyoko says.
She formed a community-based bell ringing group in Japan that played together for about six years.
In 1998, Kiyoko toured the South Island with a handbell group from Japan. Once again she fell in love, this time with New Zealand. She likes the country so much, she comes back twice a year for two or three months at a time.
“I realised there were very few handbell groups in New Zealand, so I decided to bring my bells to Christchurch. I wondered where to go with the bells until I visited Richmond Methodist Church. Minister Clive Cotton was very kind and caught me quickly, and [church member] Bruce McCallum has been very devoted to the bells.”
Learning the bells was not easy. Because some members of the group didn’t read music, initially, Kiyoko pointed to each ringer when it was their turn to play. Later a system was used in which the bells were numbered and the music was played by numbers. These days, standard sheet music is used, and to assist the ringers, the notes are colour coded.
Kiyoko is full of praise for the bell ringers. She says they are patient and devoted and they improve constantly.
The group now has a repertoire of some 60 pieces that includes hymns, carols, classical melodies, and tunes from modern musicals. Some ringers are responsible for up to four different bells in a single piece.
Bruce McCallum says, taking up bell ringing has given a real lift to the congregation. “I’m not sure that we would still be a congregation if it weren’t for the handbells. I can’t imagine Richmond Methodist without them,” he says.